John Oliver on digital misinformation: ‘There needs to be more public pressure on platforms’

The Last Week Tonight host looked at the alarming rise in fake news spread between immigrant communities due to a lack of regulation and other alternatives

John Oliver devoted this week’s episode of Last Week Tonight to the issue of digital misinformation and the havoc it can wreak.

The HBO host started by informing his viewers that despite the fact that 90% of monthly Facebook users are based outside the US and Canada, only 13% of the platform’s monitoring is spent on content outside of America.

He said it was the “same general attitude to misinformation that the Oscars took toward best pictures for the first 90 years of its existence”.

There was an unsettling clip played that showed a woman who was basing her Covid views from an unverified doctor from El Salvador via Facebook, rather than anything more official. Oliver called it “a pretty good reminder that thanks to social media, it is possible to silo yourself off and have very different experiences of living in America”.

Although he was envious of her lack of Fauci awareness. “It would have been great to see significantly less of him over the last year and a half,” he noted.

A major problem is that for immigrants in the US, there aren’t many alternatives in their own languages. For example, for Vietnamese people there is such a lack of official news that many end up on YouTube watching a man known as King Radio, a Vietnamese Alex Jones, who shares fake news 24/7. Oliver said they “both have voices that sound like bones going through a wood-chipper” while also noting they both sell unreliable products.

But while social media platforms are “screamingly bad”, the real concern is private messaging apps such as WhatsApp, and particularly China’s WeChat, which is used for communication but also news and ordering food and travel. There is a “streamlining our shared digital nightmare into one convenient place” he joked.

It’s become “a huge vector for misinformation” between Chinese families, living in both China and the US.

There are “very real impacts” to the spread of misinformation on these apps such as in India where fake news have led to violence and deaths. It’s got so serious that WhatsApp released an advert featuring an Indian father and her daughter who moved away who reminds him of the importance of checking sources. The tagline is “share joy not rumours”.

“It’s a nice sentiment, but it’s also not great when you have to produce a PSA that says ‘Some of what’s on our service is dangerous nonsense, and, if you could, help clean it up,’” he said.

Oliver called on platforms to be at least as proactive as taking down misinformation in other languages as they are when they’re in English.

He added: “There needs to be public pressure on platforms to do more about misinformation whether they are in English or not because until they do, if you are a member of one if these diaspora communities you may have to prepare yourself with more difficult conversations with your least favourite uncles.”

Guardian staff

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